Cruel Summer

Here’s a thing that libraries do very well and that many schools do… not so well: summer reading. Summer reading is super important.  ICfL created a great handout that you can find here, but some highlights include:

  • Kids who don’t read over the summer regress in academic skills by 3 months or more
  • By the end of sixth grade the gap between the academic skills of summer readers and non-readers is as much as three years
  • Only a third of Idaho fourth graders are reading at or above grade level
  • These effects are exacerbated in low income households
  • 21% of Idaho children are living below the poverty line, and half of all children in Idaho qualify for reduced price school lunch programs

Summer Reading Programs vs Summer Reading Lists

Schools often try to combat this summer reading gap with Summer Reading Lists. That is, lists of recommended, and sometimes mandatory, books for students to read.  There are any number of objections to school literary canons; they are stuffy, staid, chock full of dead white males, irrelevant on a practical level.  I still remember the classic that broke me: Beloved.  Sorry, Toni Morrison, you ruined one of the precious summers of my childhood and we are not friends anymore.  One thing is consistent across Summer Reading Lists – they are the worst.  They turn the joy of learning and imagining into a grueling, thankless chore.  In the name of what?  Common culture?  You know who I can discuss Beloved with?  No one.  Least of all myself.  Other than the fact some character was named Postage Stamp I have purged every awful page from my mind.  Reading practice?  I had been chewing through a science fiction novel every couple of days until I decided to get my Summer Reading List out of the way.  I clawed through Beloved at maybe three pages a day. Beloved probably reduced the amount of reading I did over the summer by a factor of 10.  And I was a reader.  How far do you think reluctant and non-readers make it through postmodern reflective contemplations of mother-daughter relationships and the psychological impact of the 19th century slave trade?

Summer reading lists are so busy finger wagging and being prescriptive that they utterly fail at their espoused purpose, engaging students with reading and learning. Lest you just think I really, really hate Beloved (and I do) here’s some others that agree with me about the futility or prescribed summer reading lists: Keene and Duke, Okyle, Ross, Friendly, etc. etc.  A variation is to require books that address themes, but having to read a book that addresses, say, environmentalism, and then write some sort of response about how the book addresses environmentalism is a pretty good way to ruin reading and environmentalism.  At least when there is a list of required books you can learn to hate books required by reading lists, instead of having to justify, dissect, and belabor books freely chosen.

Library Summer Reading Programs, on the other hand, exemplify glorious, glorious freedom. SRPs convey the message Always Be Reading without being didactic.  Did you read all 50 volumes of your favorite manga?  Great!  Have you considered making your own @yourlibrary?  Or dramatizing your favorite scenes @yourlibrary?  Or did you simply find a quiet spot to engage with words and ideas without accountability?  Great!  Did you read the novelization of Recent Blockbuster X?  Great!  Did you read The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English?  Great!  Do you want to make a Canterbury Tales manga or video @yourlibrary?  No?  That’s cool.  It’s all cool @yourlibrary.

Much Ado About Fiction

Much of the handwringing about voluntary reading is that kids will only voluntarily read junk. So what?  Studies have shown that pedagogically speaking there is no such thing as junk reading.  (McCabe, Cordova and Lepper, Worthy and McKool, etc.)  Also, here’s an open secret, many kids actually prefer nonfiction! (Barnes et al, Young et al, Gallo and Ness, etc.) That’s right, if adults just get out of the way kids actually like to learn on their own.  Looking at both YALSA award winners and Popular Books we can see teens are interested in history, graphic design, entrepreneurship, science, biographies and basically everything that summer reading lists try to foist upon them.

Independent Reading versus voluntary reading

Independent Reading is a term of art that mostly described reading time being provided in the classroom, although usually with assigned books. My experience of this involved Of Mice and Men in middle school.  Some people finished the book during the first week and then twiddled their thumbs for three weeks.  Some just went straight to twiddling their thumbs for four weeks.  A valiant few ground through the process for a month.  Non-readers didn’t read, avid readers under-read, and those in the middle endured.  Which end of the spectrum did this push anybody towards?  The reason this is important is that the literature likes to conflate Independent reading and Voluntary Reading.  (Discussion in Cahill et al)  Voluntary reading is where all the real gains happen, and it is the free-wheeling domain of libraries.

As we gear up for Summer Reading, remember that this counts. This is where we make a real difference for kids.  Free access to books and lots of ‘em, any genre, any subject, libraries are the Miracle Gro that keeps young brains blooming through the cruel summer.

Robert Perret is Editor of The Idaho Librarian and a Reference Librarian at the University of Idaho

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